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July 15, 2015

Why Do I Only Remember Certain Things in Certain Places?

This is the second post in my new #BrainBits series, where I'll answer your burning neuroscience questions in 60 seconds or less. If you have a question you'd like me to answer, you can e-mail me, tweet me, or submit your questions anonymously here.

Man Vyi (Wikimedia Commons)
Why do I only remember certain things in certain places? 
I'm glad you asked, because this happens to me all the time. I'll think about something, get off the couch and go to the kitchen to do whatever I told myself I needed to do, then completely lose my train of thought. Why did I come in here, anyway?

Funny enough, psychologists have actually studied this.

In a 2011 paper, Gabriel Radvansky and colleagues from the University of Notre Dame had participants play a computer game. In a virtual room, they were instructed to pick up an object from a table and take it to another table. The objects varied in color and shape. Importantly, as long as the participant was "carrying" the object, it was invisible to them.

Sometimes the participants' video game characters simply had to cross the room to put the object down. Other times, they had to walk through a virtual doorway to get to the table.

At random times throughout the experiment, participants were asked what object they were currently carrying. Interestingly, walking through a virtual doorway resulted in less accurate and slower responses than when they simply needed to cross a room.

MetroParent
But why? The authors suggest that we keep information in our working memory for as long as we consider it relevant. But when something related to the context of our memory changes — like the room we're in when we think about something — the memory must no longer be important enough for us to remember. Our brains probably think they're helping out by purging that memory for us. This is consistent with the hypothesis that, in general, recently-formed memories are extremely vulnerable to many interfering forces if they have not yet had a chance to consolidate.

To answer the broader question: we associate certain memories with certain places, and that's how we make sense of all the input flooding into our noggins. Our brains have incredible storage capacity, but they can only do so much. (Elephants* never forget, though.)

Do you forget more
When you walk through a door?
Let us know
In this anonymous poll!

Stay tuned for next week's #BrainBits: "Why do I get hangry (angry when I'm hungry)?"


(*I promised my uncle months ago that I would incorporate the word "elephant" into my next blog. Better late than never, right?)
Here you go, Uncle Ed. Jan Gillbank

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